Comic Relief or Grief?

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SWBAT analyze the impact of Shakespeare’s choices regarding how to structure comic relief by assessing whether modern audiences would find humor in the comedic situations.

Big Idea

Does Shakespeare's use of puns appeal to modern audiences?


In this lesson, we will check for understanding with a quiz on the first two Acts.  The crux of the lesson will focus on Shakespeare's use of comic relief and its effect on modern audiences.  Students will have an opportunity to find the examples in scene i of Act III and decode the puns to determine the comical effect. 

Summative Assessment: Act I and Act II Quiz

30 minutes

In this part of the lesson and before we start reading the next Act, I want to check for understanding of the first two Acts.  Therefore, I have enclosed a quiz which requires students to not only answer questions, but also provide text evidence to support their answers.  They will have to actively engage the text to master this quiz.  Answers should be written on white-lined paper.

This assessment is Common Core aligned in that it requires students to connect text evidence to specific central ideas and themes in the play.  The central ideas and themes that I chose for this assessment are those concepts that form the characters' motivations the most.  For example, I want students to understand that Iago is motivated by financial and egotistical gain.  He wants money and a feeling of superiorty over the other characters.  Secondly, these central ideas and themes develop and intertwine during the course of the play.

Understanding Comic Relief

30 minutes

Before we begin to read Act III, scene i, I want to review with students Shakespeare's use of comic relief.  We leave Act II with a very tense scene in which Iago explains in greater detail how he plans to shatter the lives of Othello, Cassio, Desdemona, and even Roderigo with his trail of deceit.  This is a very intense scene.  To combat the rising tensions and bring the emotions of the reader down a few levels, Shakespeare employs comic relief to essentially "relieve" the amount of tension and conflict that has accumulated so far.  The root of his comedy is his use of puns.  Act III begins with a playful scene between Cassio and a Clown.  Cassio has sent muscians to play beneath the window of Othello and Desdemona as a gesture to convey his sorrow for the activities the night before.  Othello's response is to send a clown to rid the musicians from his window and send a message to Cassio that he is not moved by his gesture.  The puns are a bit obscure; however, they begin when the muscian says he plays a "wind instrument" and the clown retorts, "Oh thereby hangs a tale," meaning a person's behind which expels flatulence.  Secondly, the clown asks the muscian to play "any music that may not be heard."  Essentially, he is asking him to not play anything and to go away.

Before we read this scene, I want to demonstrate to students that the pun, a play on words, is used not only in Elizabethan England, but it is also used today.  The attached video explains the pun in greater detail.

Once the video is played, I pair up students and ask them to comb the first scene and write down as many puns as they can find. Students will also explain what the pun means and how it contributes to the comic relief.  Following this activity, students will volunteer their answers and the class will judge whether the pun would be considered funny by twenty-first century audiences.  Students will also re-visit the puns from the text and consider how they can amend the pun and make it funnier for modern audiences.  I use pairs to assist students who struggle with the language.

Reading Othello, Act III, scene ii

10 minutes

If time allows, we will begin reading Act III, scene ii.  In this scene, I will advise students to notice how Iago stealthily plants the seeds of jealousy in Othello's mind.  Additionally, I want students to notice how Iago does a 180 degree turn in his assessment of the importance of reputation.  In Act II, Iago tells Cassio that reputation doesn't mean anything; however, in Act III, Iago convinces Othello that he would never lie to the Moor because his reputation means too much to him.  We are also introduced for the first time to the idea of a green-eyed monster.